By Dan Majka

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — For a little more than two weeks in April, the Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia will be transformed into the backstage of the Big Top when the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, in partnership with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, presents ‘He Who Gets Slapped.’

“The show, it’s a Russian play, it’s a hundred years old,” says Damon Bonetti, director of the play. “It’s about a heartbroken famous writer. His wife leaves him, his protégé steals all of his work, and so he throws it all away to become a clown in the circus. While he’s in the circus he becomes involved with the lives of all of these different people, the ringleader, the lion-tamer, the bareback rider, and he ends up falling in love with one of them. And then as plays happen, things happen.”

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Among those things, Bonetti says, is a ton of love triangles.

“One of the big things about the show is that everyone is in love with the thing they can’t have, and nothing can take its place; not material wealth, not art, not the circus itself,” he says. “The only thing that can salve the wound is the thing that they want, and they just can’t get it.”

Bonetti says he was given the play by a friend a number of years ago, and that’s when the idea for the show was born.

“I read it and I thought, even though it’s a hundred-year-old play it’s so contemporary, the adaptation by a gentleman by the name of Walter Wykes. It’s a beautiful play, it’s poetic, it’s very funny,” he says. “And I thought here we are at the backstage of a circus and there’s nothing in the play that gives us the element of seeing the performance because it all takes place backstage. So I thought how great would it be, because it’s a number of short scenes, that we get to see some of the physical work, some of the movement work, that it’s not just circus art that we see, but that the circus art is helping to tell the story.”


Bonetti says all of that circus art and movement is incorporated into the show, either through character development, foreshadowing, or flashing back.

“Whenever we see circus performance, it’s not just pure circus performance, but it’s story telling,” he says. “We’re getting a chance to see when the lion-tamer is refused by the man that she loves, we get to see her as the lion-tamer in the love triangle with the man she loves and the woman he loves, and it’s done in a way of a lion-tamer act. Same thing, there’s a fight between the main character, HE, and the Baron that ends up in a Tango, which actually originated the Tango as sort of a fight.”

That type of story telling, Bonetti says, is a big part of what makes his play unique.

“With the classics, usually the focus is on the words and we’re really good at that. Our company is really good at bringing these 200, 300, 400-year-old plays to life and making them contemporary and making them visceral, it’s not just, it sounds like you’re coming to see a museum piece. You’re getting to see something that’s living and breathing and visceral right in front of you,” he says. “The interesting thing about this piece, it’s not one of the oldest plays that we’ve done, but it’s not one of newest either. I think the interesting thing for us is that we’re incorporating a lot of live music into it, as well, and specifically the physical stuff, using the this physical art to tell the story.”

Bonetti says the acrobatics, juggling, tumbling, balancing and dancing, combined with live music, make for a spectacular show that is sure to wow the audience.

“I think it’s unexpected the things that were going to do on this space,” he says. “In terms of spectacle, for a small theater company, I think it’s pretty impressive.”

And he says the theatrical nature of the contrasting scenes makes them equally as powerful.

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“I think people will be surprised by the intimacy of the play, as well,” Bonetti says, “because you go from these great pieces that have a ton of people in it, a lot of music, it’s loud, it’s boisterous, and there is all of this great physical work, someone is cracking a whip and someone is jumping up in the air, and then all of a sudden you go into these two person scenes that are personal and intimate and heated and violent and beautiful, so I think it juxtaposes really well.”

Whether it’s the actor driven performances, the music or the physical work, Bonetti says this show has a little something for everyone.

“I think anybody who is interested in really good acting, anybody who is interested in theater done in a non-traditional way, I think anyone who is a fan of the classics and specifically to have a chance to see a play that doesn’t get done very often because it’s a difficult piece to do, I think all of those things are kind of a hallmarks of what PAC does. We’ve kind of found our own little niche here in town.”

‘He Who Gets Slapped’ runs from March 30 through April 16 at the Broad Street Ministry. For more information or to purchase tickets to the show, visit the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective website.


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